HOPE IS MY MIDDLE NAME
“Hope is my middle name. Really. Growing up I hated it. I wished my parents had chosen a normal middle name for me rather than an aspirational noun. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is a gift to have this promise, this uplift as part of my name.” ~ Rabbi Gayle Hope Pomerantz
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Rabbi Pomerantz’s sermon in response to President Trump’s Executive Order on Refugees
In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, we read about the Israelites continued struggle to leave Egypt and venture forth from slavery to a better place. And yet the Midrash tells us that 80% of the Israelites chose to stay behind, enslaved in Egypt, rather than risk leaving their familiar though tragic lives. I’m reminded of this as we are confronted with the plight of the millions of refugees today who are forced to leave their homes behind, more than at any time since WWII. As Roger Cohen of the NY Times wrote in an editorial:
“In their overwhelming majority refugees are fleeing violence in their homelands, not plotting against the United States. They do not put their children in dinghies on the high seas because they have a choice but because they have no choice.”
Like the ancient Israelites, they have left their entire world behind to go to some unknown place – anywhere — to seek safety for themselves and their families.
We Jews are all too familiar with this plight – there’s a reason why we’ve been called wandering Jews. We have been wanderers since the beginning of the Jewish journey, starting with our patriarch, Abraham, seeking safety for ourselves and our families.
65 million people in the world today have been displaced by violence, and 20 million are classified as refugees. At times this crisis has seemed so far away, but then we see a picture of little Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on the beach, or the stunned child in the ambulance in Syria covered in the dust of an explosion and we are chilled to the bone. We know their crisis is our crisis. It’s part of our story as Jews and as Americans.
My grandfather came from Russia to the U.S. over 100 years ago to flee Anti-Semitism and hunger. He was missing a piece of his ear that had been shot off when he was caught stealing potatoes so that he would have something to eat. We all have stories like this.
That’s why the President’s Executive Order indefinitely blocking Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. and temporarily blocking refugees from primarily Moslem countries is so odious to the Jewish community.
Leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, among many others, and Christian organizations too, have all publicly condemned the new policy, which was poignantly and ironically signed on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jen Smyers of Church World Services said that the Executive Order was “akin to Trump taking a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty.”
And the Reform Movement stated that we denounce “…in the strongest terms the horrifying Executive order on immigration and refugees …barring entry of all Syrian refugees, imposing in essence a religious test for entry to the U.S., and refusing entry to any individual coming from a list of majority-Muslim nations – betraying even those individuals who have supported our nation’s military efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Families are now being held apart and countless individuals who have served our nation in the most difficult circumstances are in jeopardy. We have not forgotten our charge: ‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ (Leviticus 19:33-34)”
Recently the Obama administration took a small step forward raising the number of refugees the U.S. will take in from 85,000 to 110,000. But that number will be more than halved from 110,000 to 50,000 when the Refugee program resumes.
Fear of refugees is not new. In 1939, the U.S. turned away hundreds of Jews fleeing Hitler’s Germany because of worries that some of them might be Nazi sympathizers or communists. More than a quarter of them died, including Anne Frank, whose family was denied refugee status by the U.S.
Those who point to Islamist terrorism as a reason to be fearful of refugees today should know that since 2001, 800,000 refugees have been resettled in the U.S. and not one of them has been convicted of domestic terrorism. A Cato Institute study of refugees admitted to the U.S. between 1975 and 2015 found that the chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion.
Canada, which is a 10th of the population of the U.S. has resettled more than double the number of Syrian refugees. “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith,” Prime minister Trudeau wrote, “Diversity is our strength.”
The U.S. has taken in less than one half of one percent of the world’s refugees. Surely we can do better, not worse. Next week many of the rabbis in Miami will be conferencing with the leadership of HIAS to figure out how we can support refugees in this critical situation. Here are other action steps you can take proposed by HIAS:
- Send a message directly to President Trump.
- Call your Member of Congress
- Attend the Jewish Day of Action for Refugees on Feb. 12
- Make a donation
Each year at our Seders we read: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out of Egypt.” But Maimonides intentionally misreads this statement. Instead of the word lirot – to see oneself, he reads: l’harot – to show ourselves.
How do we show ourselves, and our children and the children of others that we went forth from Egypt? By feeling the pain of others who must flee. By opening our hearts and our country, to the extent we are able, to those in need. By extending our hands in support to our Moslem neighbors who are feeling threatened and isolated. Just this afternoon, Rabbi Davis and I attended an interfaith solidarity service at a local Mosque to show our support. It felt a bit surreal when the Imam quoted the book of Leviticus to us, about loving the stranger as you love yourself.
America has always been a beacon of hope to those fleeing persecution. May the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal once again ring true:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”